By Mike Rademacher, Guest Writer

The video game industry grew from humble beginnings to a multi-billion dollar industry over the course of about 40 years. The industry hoped to increase their already impressive profits last year by introducing technology that the public had seen before, but with updated hardware for a newer generation. That technology was virtual reality (VR) and they hoped that despite the failure of mainstream adoption in the past, they would finally succeed this time. Even though sales seemed strong starting out, VR did not set the world on fire like the gaming industry had hoped.

There are three main contenders for VR in the gaming space, the Vive from HTC, the Facebook backed Oculus Rift, and the Playstation VR (PSVR). The Rift launched in March of 2016 and the Vive launched in April of 2016 and their sales were rather lukewarm as of February 2017 (only selling around 600,000 units between the both of them according to Paul Tassi’s article on Forbes). However, Playstation VR sales were looking quite strong, according to Tassi it sold around 900,000 units by February 2017 and considering that it had only been on the market since October 2016 it sounded like it was doing significantly better than its competitors. It makes sense that PSVR was doing better, considering that it is one of the cheaper options at launch only costing around $400 for the hardware and another $400 dollars for a Playstation 4 (the other two require a $1000+ PC, plus the $600 Rift or the $800 Vive at launch).

But are the PSVR sales really that impressive considering there are about 60 million Playstation 4 owners? This leaves only about 2 percent of those owners also owning a VR unit. The bestselling VR unit is only selling a small fraction of its install base and that is not good. Of that small fraction of PSVR owners is John Garrison, assistant manager at the local GameStop. Garrison said, “It’s pretty good,” referring to the VR unit, however, he says he has not used it much lately. “Part of the issue is that there are not that many titles that have been released for [VR],” said Garrison. Not many game developers are developing for virtual reality and that is why VR units may not be selling like the industry had hoped for. After all, it is difficult to develop video games for VR that don’t make people nauseous.

“I played for about 15 minutes and started feeling sick to my stomach,” Garrison said referring to the game Resident Evil 7 that obviously didn’t work too well with the VR controls. So, the big challenge at the moment is finding a way to develop games for VR that don’t make people sick. But Garrison did iterate that games, while the main medium for VR, aren’t the only virtual reality experiences out there. He said there are certain smaller experiences that let the user experience what’s going on around them that are usually much more enjoyable. “There are ones that make videos where you’re actually riding in a roller coaster… it makes you feel like you’re really there,” Garrison said. These are less interactive experiences than playing a video game, but Garrison emphasizes that they are interesting none the less. Because these smaller experiences are less likely to induce nausea and are more accessible, it might be a good idea for VR to invest in more of these smaller experiences to reach a broader audience.  

Jacob Stewart, a video game enthusiast, had used VR in this way to watch a basketball game, however, he was not all that impressed. Stewart said, “I watched a basketball game and it was court side… It was cool at the time, but I felt like my experience wasn’t bettered.” While he thought that the court side view in VR was interesting, he still would have rather watched it on television or attended the game. Stewart did say, “If they made VR with a bird’s eye [view] as opposed to court side that might be more interesting.” Stewart expressed that VR could be used in more meaningful and interesting ways than it is right now. For one the ability to experience things that many people may not be able to experience due to lack of funding or physical limitations.

“That might be where the hot spot is for VR… I don’t really have the funds or the stamina to go climb mount Everest… [to] experience it digitally might be kind of a cool experience,” Stewart said. Being able to use the technology in this way was a lot more appealing for Stewart and may be more appealing to others as well. “That is honestly more of an interesting concept,” Stewart said. Using VR for once in a lifetime experiences, like the Mount Everest experience Stewart described, might be a more viable market for VR than video games.

So, why would companies keep pouring money into a technology that is not being utilized properly as of now? VR units are expensive and playing video games is an expensive hobby, so it seems like the right fit. But with everyone experiencing nausea and people like Stewart showing very little to no interest, it may be time to change the focus of VR. Stewart says that he would rather use VR to experience real life adventures that he normally could not experience and there are many others out there just like him.

Stewart said, “I just think VR, as it stands right now, just feels like [sort of] a big gimmick.” With thoughts like that, it may be time for developers to find a different use for virtual reality technology.